Your ultimate guide to the Crimean War
Why did the Crimean War break out? And where was the conflict fought? What were the major battles? Dr David Murphy and Professor Andrew Lambert provide the need-to-know facts about the Crimean War...
Dr David Murphy, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, brings you some need-to-know facts on why, when and where the Crimean War happened...
What was the Crimean War, and when was it fought?
It was fought by an alliance of Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia against Russia. It broke out in October 1853 – although Britain and France only became involved in 1854 – and ended in February 1856.
Why did it break out?
In short, Russia was expanding into the Danube region – Romania today. This was under Turkish control. Therefore, Turkey and Russia went to war in 1853, and the following year Britain and France – fearful of Russian expansion – became involved.
Britain and France did not like to see Russia pushing down into the Danube region. They feared Russia would continue pushing down, and eventually come into British India through Afghanistan.
Religious tensions also played a part. Russia made an issue of the fact that the holiest sites in Christianity – Jerusalem, Bethlehem etc – were under Turkish control.
Where was the war fought?
It was fought on the Crimean peninsula, and also on the Black Sea. It was supposed to play out in the Danubian Principalities (Moldavia and Walachia), but successful Turkish military action and political pressure from Britain, France and Austria forced Russia to withdraw.
The new target for France and Britain became the Russian naval base at Sevastopol – they wanted to destroy Russian naval power in the Black Sea.
There were three main battles: the battle of the Alma on 20 September 1854, the battle of Balaclava on 24 October, and a major Russian attack at the Inkerman, in November.
After the battle of the Alma, the city was besieged by British, French, and later Sardinian troops. The Russians came out in October and November and tried to push the allies back. But these were not decisive, and the siege dragged on until September 1855.
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This was trench warfare, with British and French troops trying to push into certain Russian positions. There were heavy casualties. More than 200,000 were killed. That is for all armies, including the Russians.
How did the war come to an end?
In September 1855 the Russians evacuated Sevastopol following the storming of the vital Malakhov bastion by French troops. In short, Russia gave in, and there began a move towards peace talks. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856.
What were the outcomes of the war?
As part of the treaty, the Russian naval base was supposed to have been run down, to reduce Russian power in the Black Sea, but it never happened. Britain and France were soon no longer strong enough to make it happen, and there emerged increasing tensions between them.
But not all of the problems went away. Turkey and Russia went to war once again in 1877, but this time Britain and France stayed out.
There have been suggestions that the Crimean War was one of the first ‘modern’ wars. Is this true?
Yes, we can recognise a number of trends. There was a level of international alliance – major powers coming together – that we would recognise today. There was also public hysteria to get involved in the war, as in the First World War.
Weapons were also more modern, and it prophesied the trench warfare that would later be seen in the American Civil War.
Andrew Lambert, a professor of naval history at King's College London, answers further questions on the Crimean War...
How important was naval warfare to the conflict?
It was crucial. When we talk about the Crimean War, most people have visions of deluded cavalry charges, thin red lines of infantry and Florence Nightingale; the naval dimension is often overlooked in favour of these stories.
It was the Royal Navy that transported Britain’s army and landed soldiers in the Crimea. Most of the heavy artillery used during the siege of Sevastopol was naval, many of the gunners were naval, and it was the Royal Marines of the Fleet who backed up the Highlanders at the battle
of Balaclava. From medical evacuation to transporting supplies, the whole thing was run by the Navy. Significantly, the main theatre of the war in the Baltic was naval, too, even if there was little violence there because the Russians wouldn’t come out to fight. Ultimately, this was a maritime strategic effort, and in all four theatres – the Baltic, the Black Sea, the White Sea and the Pacific – the primary target was the Russian navy and its bases.
What was Florence Nightingale's role in the war?
Well, it’s true that Florence Nightingale ended up inventing the modern nursing profession, but that’s not what she was doing in the Crimea. In the Crimean War she was a hospital manager, and a very good one at that. But much of the actual hospital work was done by male orderlies, as had always been the case – bandsmen, buglers and men in non-combatant roles who were still part of the regiment strength. Women of Nightingale’s class would not have dreamt of putting their hands on the dirty, damaged bodies of working-class men. So, any female nursing that was done was not carried out by her or her immediate circle. Instead, it was done by women of lower status, many of them coming through holy orders, such as Catholic nuns.
Florence Nightingale’s most important achievement was to take command of a pretty disparate group of organisations that were sending people into the theatre of war. She imposed order and gained control of funds, so it was her managerial skills that really mattered. By contrast, Mary Seacole went to the Crimea to run a hotel, but she also took a very active role in first aid and dealing with the wounded as far as it’s possible for one person to do.
Nightingale and Seacole were at different ends of the spectrum: one was organising aid as an extension of government, and the other was delivering aid as an extension of hospitality.
Did any country have a distinct advantage in military hardware or weaponry?
The British and French had a serious advantage on the battlefield. They used rifled muskets, which gave them an accurate range three times that of the Russians, who were using smoothbore muskets. That being said, the Russians in Sevastopol had lots of artillery, mostly big naval artillery, so they weren’t short of firepower in that regard.
The allies, however, had other advantages, including deploying the world’s first armoured warships in battle. During their attack on Fort Kinburn (now in modern Ukraine) on 17 October 1855, three armoured batteries, specifically designed to attack coastal forts, were used by the French, and the British had several of these as well. The Russians, though, made the first use of underwater moored mines in an attempt to sink ships. The mines weren’t big enough to actually sink any ships, but they laid big minefields that the allied navies had to sweep up.
Allied horses, particularly the British horses, were very powerful animals known for their endurance. The Charge of Light Brigade was five times as far as an 18th-century cavalry force would have charged, so these were much bigger, stronger animals than those used in the past. The French, too, had very good horses, mainly of North African descent – smaller, agile horses more used to campaigning in rough terrain.
Steamships were massively important in the logistics of the war, and their use meant that by the middle of 1855, the allies were able to supply any number of men to the Crimea. There were nearly a quarter of a million allied soldiers in the Crimea living off supplies that were being brought to them by sea.
Could Russia have won the war?
I don’t think there was any way in which Russia could have won the Crimean War. The Russians had no means of attacking their real enemies: they could attack Turkey, but they couldn’t get to Britain or France. The German powers were neutral, so the Russians couldn’t march through Prussia and Austria.
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This was the catastrophe of Russia’s decision making: they picked a fight that they couldn’t win. The best they could have hoped for was a draw and for the allies to go home. But that was presuming that the allies would lose the will to fight.
So, no, they could not have won this war. Defeat was inevitable – it was just a question of how long it took.
Did geographical borders change as a result of the Crimean War?
There were some small border changes around Moldova but that’s it, really. The main thing that happened after the war was the demilitarisation of many areas: the Black Sea became exclusively for merchant and police vessels, with no warships allowed, while in the Baltic the Åland Islands were demilitarised, meaning that the Russians couldn’t rebuild their fortress at Bomarsund.
This had a massive strategic impact and shifted the balance of power firmly in favour of the western maritime powers. It also meant that the British and French could send fleets into the Black Sea and the Russians could do nothing about it.
Elsewhere, Sweden ceased to be under the dominion of the Russian tsar, as it had been between 1815 and 1854, and joined the western world.
What changes did the Crimean War bring about in the militaries of Europe and beyond?
The first thing to point out about the Crimean War is that pretty much everything that happened in the American Civil War (1861-65) was based on what had happened in the Crimea – from rifled muskets and trenches, to massive fortifications and ironclad warships. The ironclad Confederate warships of the American Civil War were essentially straight copies of what the British and French were using in 1855. And when Union soldiers went into battle wearing their peaked caps and baggy red trousers, they were dressing up like Frenchmen because the French had the best army in the world.
Every army in Europe was impacted by the Crimean War, too: they raced to get better rifles, better artillery, and they started thinking about new tactics as well.
How did the conflict affect Russian identity?
The Crimea is one of many wars in which the Russians assert that they were attacked by eastern or western powers who overran their territory and humiliated them. This is a belief that used to have real resonance in Ukraine, which was an area where – during the Crimean War – the Russians were propagandising and actively preparing the population to resist the western forces. Indeed, the arguments that Russian president Vladimir Putin is using today regarding the hostility of the west and the cultural damage that the west could cause has echoes with the earlier conflict.
The big problem with the Crimean War is that, in Britain at least, we’ve completely forgotten the role of everybody else. We’ve forgotten who our allies were, that there was fighting in the Baltic, and that the main instrument of victory was economic warfare. Instead, we only seem to remember stories like the Charge of the Light Brigade, which are either not true or not as significant as they have been portrayed. We’ve confused the window dressing with strategic power.
Andrew Lambert's interview was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Dr David Murphy is a lecturer at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, specialising in military history
Andrew Lambert is Laughton professor of naval history in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
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